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Sierra Should have brought marshmallows.
Maybe set up camp chairs.
Asked Ben King, country music star and fiancé of her best friend, Kacey, to show up and croon out a ballad, something about a gal down on her luck.
Then she could have sold tickets to the gawkers watching the Mercy Falls fire department douse the wreckage of her collapsed house with fuel, cordon off the area with their fire hoses, just in case, and set on fire the only place she'd really called home.
Sierra had to joke, had to find a reason to laugh, or she would dissolve into tears. All of eastern Glacier National Park was on fire, her team was on a fire-related callout, and she was here watching her house burn to the ground.
"It's just a house, sweetie." Blossom, her mother, put her arm over her shoulders. She looked fresh out of the sixties in a paisley sleeveless maxi dress and her long brown hair in two braids.
"Yes, but it was my house," Sierra said, and tried not to let a sigh creep into her voice. Her mother would simply tell her to snap out of it. There wasn't a problem Blossom couldn't solve, a happenstance that she couldn't figure a way through.
Even if she had to change her name, her residence, even her boyfriend ...
That wasn't fair. Because for all her quirks, Blossom had been a good mother.
She'd taught Sierra how to survive, how to just keep moving forward.
Even though she'd shown up to watch — well, along with a horde of other neighbors, the entire volunteer fire department, and even a few kids from Willow's youth group — as the pile of rubble that used to be her home turned to ash.
"you could live in a yurt."
"They're bigger than they look."
Sierra turned to her, and Blossom held up her hand. "Fine. For the record, I liked your house. It was ... creative."
"It was old. The floors sagged, the walls barely had any insulation left, and the kitchen addition tilted to one side."
"But you filled it with love."
No, she'd filled it with garage sale specials.
But she had painted all the walls, fashioned furniture out of scraps, and generally turned the house into a place that felt cozy.
A place where she belonged.
"yeah, I suppose." Sierra folded her arms over her chest, took a long breath in as she heard the rumble of the dozer churning its way up the alley.
The firemen wore their turnout pants and helmets, leaving off their jackets for this ho-hum fire exercise. They dragged hoses around the house to the backyard, which had eroded away in last summer's flood.
A few of the neighbors had hooked up their own hoses, just in case embers landed on their roofs.
One of the firemen lit a torch, and a murmur rippled through the crowd. She glanced behind her, longing to spot one of her PEAK teammates.
But no — they'd been called out this morning to rescue a couple of firefighters who'd been injured trying to outrun a raging fire in eastern Glacier National Park.
The fire had ignited near Saint Mary Lake, in the drought-dry forest in the eastern part of the park, and a week later over four hundred wildland firefighters from across Montana, Idaho, Washington, and even Minnesota battled to control nearly four thousand acres of inferno.
Separated from their team, two firefighters had outrun a spur of flame, jumping over a cliff to escape the blaze.
Into that inferno, her PEAK rescue teammates flew to rescue them.
Really, they weren't her teammates. She stood on the outskirts of the team; she was the assistant, the one who filed reports, paid the bills, cleaned the office, and yes, sometimes baked cookies.
All the same, it hadn't stopped Sierra from swiping a radio from PEAK HQ, just to keep up with the rescue. Not that they needed her, but recently Chet had let her man the squawk box, taught her the rescue codes, and generally upgraded her from all-around Girl Friday to a quasi member of the team.
Maybe someday she'd even get to ride along in the chopper.
Rescue the lost, just like Pete, Gage, Ty, Jess, and Kacey.
Even superstar country music star Ben King had his SAR creds, helping out when he wasn't on tour.
Which meant that just because she could bake a mean batch of chocolate chippers didn't mean that someday she wouldn't be one of them, saving lives, swapping stories, dusting off from near-misses.
Becoming someone who changed lives. Not left on the sidelines.
"Sierra, you need to sign here to authorize the fire department to, well, burn your house down."
Deputy Sam Brooks had sidled up to her, holding a pen and an authorization form. He glanced at Blossom, gave her a quick smile. "Hello, Blossom."
"It's nice to see you, Sam."
Sierra never thought her mother would take sides after Sam broke up with Sierra for her kid sister, Willow. Still, the way Blossom grinned at him, slipping her arm around him even as he tried to hand Sierra the authorization, seemed a tad too forgiving.
Oh, it wasn't Sam's fault he fell hard for Willow, with her long brown hair, beautiful hazel-blue eyes, winsome smile. Willow never made waves, had an encouraging word for everyone, and frankly had been the best thing that happened to Sam.
Sierra had never belonged with Sam, and everyone knew it.
Except maybe the one person she wished had noticed.
"Where do I sign?"
Sam indicated the line, and she scribbled something, hopefully her name.
He nodded the go-ahead to the fire chief, ironically one of the deacons at church, who then walked up to the remains of her life.
Lit it on fire.
The house went up with a whoosh of flame, which then trickled up the broken boards and ignited the remnants of curtains, furniture, fabric. She'd spent a little time sifting through the debris to find pictures, but the house so completely tumbled in on itself, folding after the flood of the century took out the foundation, that recovering any surviving memorabilia meant risking her life.
It was just stuff.
Smoke lifted, billowed, darkening the sky and turning the air sooty. Her eyes began to water.
A fine mist from the fire hoses defended the nearby houses.
"I don't understand why you had to burn it," her mother said.
"Why couldn't you just bulldoze it away?"
Because she already owed the bank thousands of dollars on her home, and having it bulldozed meant sinking more cash into land that she might never pay off.
"The fire department said they'd burn it down for free if they could use it as a training exercise." The dozer would bury the remains, and then she could sell it.
And maybe make enough to walk away, free and clear.
How she hated insurance companies and their fine print.
As if on cue, the giant dozer began to push the debris into a tight pile.
Something exploded, perhaps a canister from the kitchen, and the crowd gave a collective gasp. Sierra stepped away as the flames reached two stories, a hum to the fire now. Growing.
"I gotta run. The team is on a callout, and I have to check in," Sam said, glancing at her. "you okay?"
Sweet. But that was Sam. She should have loved him. Wished, sometimes, that she had.
Because then she'd have her happy ending neatly tied up. A future with someone who couldn't live without her.
A home. Family.
Someone to belong to.
"yeah, I'm fine," she said and managed to keep her voice even.
"I'll be in when they finish turning my house to ash."
Sam gave her a small, pitying smile, disentangled himself from Blossom's hold, and jogged to his cruiser.
The dozer continued to push the house in a pile, toward the hole in the earth.
"He's going to propose to Willow," Blossom said quietly. "He asked me, like he needed my blessing."
Sierra glanced at her mother, who now affected a tight smile. So maybe she did harbor the smallest bit of deference to her oldest daughter's wounds, however healed.
But it had never been Sam who left the scars on her heart.
"That's Sam. He always does things right," Sierra said. And Willow, well, the sun just shone on her, even when the clouds seemed to close in.
Willow had gotten all the things Sierra longed for, without even trying.
"I told him that Willow wasn't likely to want to do anything that permanent —"
Blossom caught Sierra's hand, grinned. "I'm kidding. Of course Willow will say yes. I just don't understand you two. Willow, getting married. you, buying a home, setting down roots."
"I'm officially homeless."
"No. Home is where your heart is. Nothing wrong with letting the wind carry you. You just might find someplace you never want to leave." Blossom pulled her daughter in for a hug. "By the way, you can always come and live in the commune —"
"I'm fine at Jess's house. I even have my own bedroom now."
"Talk about a house that just might collapse." Blossom let her go, hitched her fringe purse onto her shoulder. "Any house you buy for a dollar ..."
"She's proud of it. And at least it's paid for." She cast another look at the now-charred pile. Flames continued to lick through the black smoke.
Blossom gave her a kiss and headed for her truck, on loan from the commune.
Sierra crossed the street to her little hatchback, waving to the family across the street that was sitting on the porch, eating cookies.
She opened the door, sat in the front seat. She used to have a porch.
In fact, on that porch, she'd nearly told her former boss, Ian Shaw, that she loved him. Right before he said that perhaps they should just stay friends. Professional friends.
Not the kind who shared kisses she should probably forget.
She only had herself to blame for the wreckage of that relationship.
Maybe it was best the memories burned to the ground.
She picked up her phone, checking for calls.
No, checking for the call.
Exactly thirty-one days since she'd found Esme Shaw.
Er, Shae Johnson.
Every call she'd made to Shae since then went to voicemail. Which meant that Shae probably wasn't coming home.
For a moment, Sierra wanted to climb into her car and just ... start driving. Let the wind carry her, like her mother suggested. End up somewhere far, far away.
Home is where your heart is.
How she wished that were true.
Ian wasn't likely to forgive her for not telling him about Esme, regardless of Esme's request. She should simply resign herself to the truth that she'd obliterated any flimsy remnant of their friendship.
And she should start rebuilding from the ashes of her life. She had the PEAK team, after all.
She clicked on her handheld radio from PEAK, hoping to get an update on the rescue.
Jess's voice came over the line. "Ten feet, can you bring it in closer?"
She hated this part — waiting, listening, not able to do anything but pray. Especially since sometimes it felt like her prayers were akin to throwing a pea at a mountain and expecting it to move.
Sierra tried not to hold her breath, wince, or even grab the radio to what — interject some encouragement? Right. Just listening to Kacey and Jess made her palms sweat.
Then, finally, Jess's voice. "Ready to load."
Sierra was watching her house sizzle when the explosion ripped through the coms. A terrible tearing of metal and wood.
Followed by a scream, keening and high.
The coms cut to static — boneless white noise that crackled through Sierra like electricity. Jess!
Sierra caught her breath. In her mind's eye, she could see it. Ty Remington in the copilot seat, maybe EMT Gage Watson in the back, clutching the strapping in the cargo bay as the chopper spun out of control, careening toward some jagged gorge or granite mountainside, leaving Jess stranded on the cliff.
"Mayday! Mayday!" Kacey's voice broke through. "Mayday! We lost a rotor, and we're going down!"
Sierra pressed her hand over her mouth, closed her eyes as the silence stretched out, leaving only the terrible thundering of her heart.
Oh, please —
Chet's voice came over the line. "Air Rescue, come in."
She pressed the radio to her forehead, her eyes closed, her heart slamming against her chest.
Come in, come in!
The static buzzed through her as, across the yard, the dozer pushed the ashes of her house into its grave.
After all his other failures this summer, Ian just couldn't let his best friend die.
"Listen," Dex said, strapping on his helmet. "you showed up here yesterday all moody. If anyone needs to do something crazy, it's you, dude."
"I'm not —"
"I know you, bro. Something's eating at you, and usually that means you need adrenaline. Escape. Speed, right?"
He made a face. Dex was right. The faster Ian went, the more dangerous the stunt, the higher the risk ... the more he escaped his memories.
And today, Ian wanted to forget it all.
Starting with the choking, acrid oil fires of eastern Montana that had turned once-lush prairie land to ash and incinerated an entire town.
On his watch. The software he'd developed was supposed to stop these kinds of drilling pressure accidents. His fail, his fault.
Then he'd erase the last four fruitless years of searching for a girl who didn't want to be found, especially by him.
And if he went fast enough, rode that adrenaline high enough, he might even destroy the brutal remorse over letting Sierra Rose walk out of his life.
So, yeah, probably he should get on his bike and gun it down the canyon as fast as his WR450F trail bike could go.
But jumping over Crawford Creek?
Ian had an inkling of where Dex might be taking them when they'd topped the bluff that overlooked the vast two hundred thousand acres of cattle and oil land in south Texas owned by the Crawford family since the land grant of 1897. Ian loved this view — the place where he first dreamed big, longed for his own spread. His own legacy.
He'd always hoped to return to Texas, but not this way. Not after watching everything he loved slide through his fingers.
Right now, he needed to feel anything but helpless.
He stared out to the track Dex had suggested they run. "This is insane."
"I know. I've been waiting to do this since our senior year in high school." Dex hiked his leg over his bike.
"Don't tell me you haven't been planning this for years, Shaw. Nobody likes to go down listening to his own screams. You're aching for another go."
Ian sighed. He worked on his gloves, scanning the trail ahead.
"Okay, whatever," Dex said to his silence. "I'm doing this with or without you."
With. Ian's jaw tightened. He'd never been good at deterring Dex. But maybe he could keep him alive. "Fine. But I'm going first."
Dex raised an eyebrow.
Dex had the ability to make the jump. A thrill-seeker like Ian, he'd been the one who introduced Ian to the high of epic sports. Still ...
"Like you said, I've been planning this for, well, years. I'm going first, and you're going to stay on my tail and do exactly what I say."
Dex beamed at him. "No problem, dude. I've been doing that all my life."
Hardly. Dexter Crawford, son of billionaire rancher John Crawford, marched to his own beat. But he had been listening to Ian since high school. Brilliant but dyslexic, Dex managed to stay in school by getting his foreman's son, Ian, to tutor him, even after they both headed to Stanford.
Ian studied the route. Once they got off the bluff, they'd hit it hard, cutting down over the rutted hillside, through the tangle of mesquite and juniper brush, bushy walnut and desert willow. At the bottom, they'd shoot out into the canyon, picking up speed as they cut through the lotebush and blueweed grasses, the downed and gnarled cottonwoods that lay along the edge of Crawford Creek.
The creek turned into a river during the spring, when the rainy season filled the draws and riverbeds. But now, the water ran shallow, with boulders protruding from the surface of the spring-fed creek.
The bank on each side rose twenty feet, and the rock face was striated with evidence of the water levels.
Ian knew exactly the place where they'd cross — a lip that arched just over the creek, adding lift to their takeoff. Only sixty feet, but ...
He still had the scars from the pins in his collarbone.
Not this time.
He needed this moment, this triumph. Could nearly taste it — not just the soaring, but the landing. Upright and not skidding across the dust to end up tangled in devil-weed.
Excerpted from "Troubled Waters"
Copyright © 2018 Susan May Warren.
Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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